Jason Kelk was a very good friend to me for over 27 years and watching his fight against COVID-19 over the past 14 months was extremely hard to see for many of us who knew him so well. There were some very dark times, but during the early part of 2021 it was looking like he had finally turned a corner and was back on Facebook chatting and posting once again (albeit from his hospital bed). Of course, he still had a way to go, but none of us ever thought we would lose him like we tragically did on the 18th of June 2021.
As I write this, I still feel numb and it has not quite sunk in yet that I will not be able to catch up with Jason and spend time with him, along with Sean Connolly and Darren Nevell. My brain is still trying to process it all, so I decided to write everything down about my memories of how I first met Jason and our friendship over the years.
Writing stuff down has always been my own personal way of processing things, so what follows has been freely written and straight from the heart. I hope it makes for interesting reading and that it gives a sense from my perspective at least what a great guy Jason was.
First meeting Jason
It was just by pure chance that I got to know Jason. I had just completed my first year at Secondary School and was still playing and supporting the Commodore 64, though it was clear that these were the twilight years now for the machine. Regardless of that, a computer shop in Canterbury, Kent called ComputerWorld was still stocking C64 games, which was quite something considering the likes of Boots/John Menzies had by now stopped doing so.
At the time, my older sister and her family had a Commodore Amiga 500 and would semi-regularly pop into ComputerWorld to pick up a new game. It was one chance visit where my brother-in-law Colin would get chatting to a long blond-haired guy behind the counter. Whilst purchasing their Amiga game, the guy behind the counter was telling Colin about how much he supported the Commodore 64 and loved the machine.
Colin was quick to report back to me that there was another “C64 nutter” like me at the store. All he knew was that his name was Jason. Of course, I was then desperate to visit, as I seemed to be the only person in the world who still was into the machine at the time and had yet to meet anyone with similar interests.
I eventually got over to Canterbury, went into the store and found someone behind the counter who matched the description. I tentatively asked if they were “Jason” and if he was “the guy who was into the Commodore 64”. Thankfully, it was indeed him, and I proceeded to spend the next 2-3 hours chatting all things C64 – completely in my element and so excited to be able to share the same passion with someone.
By then, the only C64 magazine on the shelves was Commodore Format – looking a bit sorry for itself these days with its dwindling readership. So, the subject got onto the magazine and Jason was quick to say that his new game Reaxion was about to be released on their covermount in the very next issue.
I remember the excitement and anticipation waiting for the game, especially as I now knew the developer. Suffice to say, I was blown away by the quality of the game in every department – although a simple puzzler at heart, it was extremely well presented and featured some wonderful music by Sean Connolly.
Visiting Jason at ComputerWorld
Getting to Canterbury on a regular basis was difficult at the time, as I did not have any money and relied on relatives to take me over on days off. After meeting Jason, I tried to get over a bit more frequent now to visit.
When I next did, Jason was a bit angry. Someone at Commodore Format had “Action Replay frozen” Reaxion on the intro screen, so the full animated sequence of the “Commodore Format” logo was not properly displayed. I did not quite understand what he meant, but he gave me a SYS code to run the full sequence to see it as it was intended to be seen.
Like a complete nerd, I often took small pocket notebook with me, so I could write down any tips/facts that Jason might share on the day, and this was one of them. I was quite into cheats and hidden secrets in games at the time, and I remember Jason telling me how to activate the Daring Dots demo in Fruitbank/Supernudge 2000 with a SYS code as well for example.
Whilst I was there, I recall buying another C64 game and I had decided to get Turbocharge on the Kixx label which had recently been released. I remember Jason commenting on what a fantastic choice it was, and how great the music was – done by his friends Sean Connolly and Marc Francois.
Sean had of course done the music for Reaxion, and Jason explained to me about how the two composers had managed to make it sound like there were 5 SID channels instead of 3, and with sound effects playing too – constantly referring to them as geniuses.
It may have been on the same visit, but I think I asked Jason if I could write to him (like pen pals) and got his home address. I must have sent a letter talking about the C64 and trying to learn more about what he was working on. Not long after, I had a professionally printed letter back with a “Bigtime Software Company” header that looked very official and cool.
Jason then proceeded to give a rundown of the current C64 projects that would follow on from Reaxion. Considering that the C64 was dying out, it was exciting to see so much in the pipeline – and I would constantly nag Jason for updates about the games as the years went on.
Subsequent visits and various memories
At the time, I was producing my own games in SEUCK to try and “save the C64” in my own little way, though my efforts in hindsight were of course terrible. I had seen Shaun Pearson’s excellent Sub Burner game on Commodore Format’s PowerPack around that time, and I started to copy it quite a bit in a title called “Axel Burner” with my label of “Bad Boys Productions”.
On another visit, I was telling Jason and his friend Tony Gibbs (who was also a C64 developer) about the game and they were both sniggering at the names, but trying their best not to and potentially upset me. Sensing both were perhaps not the best, I ended up renaming both to something even more crap! 😀
I always remember that there was this little store cupboard by the main purchase desk, and Jason had managed to kit it out with a working C64 + disk drive on a shelf, with a small black and white TV above. The way he talked about everyone being like family there, I assumed they must have let him do it because of it. I took him a bit literal though and always though the blond-haired older lady who worked there was his mum as a result for a while! He had a good laugh when I told him this years later.
When things were not too busy, he would do a bit of coding or load up stuff to show friends on that C64. One very fond memory was being shown a new demo that had just been released after Christmas in 1995. I had started to get into demos thanks to Jason and Binary Zone PD and was amazed at how they pushed the machine.
Jason said something along the likes of – “I’ve got something you have to see, it’s a new demo from Reflex and it is amazing!”, then loaded up what was Mathematica.
At the time we had already been stunned by Reflex’s Access Denied and Radio Napalm demos and were anticipating what they would do next to push the boundaries of the C64. We watched the demo (I think with Tony Gibbs) on the little b/w telly and were wowed by the rotating donut and mesmerized by the fast Wolfenstein parts towards the end. I was completely blown away, and naïve old me thought that surely the C64 could complete with the Sony PlayStation 🙂 I had just brought a box of disks, and Jason quickly made a copy for me to take home and watch in full colour.
Other times I recall Jason showing off the work he was doing for Kenz and Psytronik and showed the games and enhancements for The Shoot ‘Em Up Destruction Set. It was almost like you were being shown a “behind the scenes” for the new games coming out at the time, which was very exciting.
The visits would continue over the next few years, but the staggering thing was that well into 1995, the shop was still stocking new C64 software. It had been Jason flying the flag and he had convinced his bosses that there was still a small niche market. They would stock titles from Electric Boys Entertainment Software in a last-ditch effort, but sadly the market had completely gone, and that tiny section would soon disappear to be replaced by PC/Amiga games.
Jason’s encouragement to move away from tapes
Sometime during late 1994, I had finally picked up a disk drive thanks to my parents, which was something Jason had urged me to try and get if I could and move away from tapes and experience proper C64 demos. Memory has faded a little here, but I am certain my brother Colin had popped in for me to get a box of Kodak branded disks and told Jason that I had managed to get a drive.
Jason was happy for me and told Colin to wait a moment and popped into his storeroom at the side. He came back with two disks work of demos, game development previews and his recent C64 demos Contraflow and Lethargy – so that I had something new to load up and check out.
I was over the moon – I had two amazing demos to check out, but also another disk had a series of game previews of titles that Jason was working on at the time. These included early builds of Warflame and Cyberwing, but also a very early sideways scrolling shooter called Dionysus III which had the speech engine ripped from the Speech tool released on Commodore Format just a few issues earlier.
It was clear on the title screen that Jason had intended to complete the game to release on Commodore Format – but sadly he would later lose interest and it was never to be. The thing that always stuck with me about the game was his own cover of an Erasure tune.
Another interesting title was a very early test for a sort of Blagger clone, inspired by the Crackers Revenge blagger title – this one also would not progress any further. Then finally there were a few sample SEUCK efforts which featured some of the most amazing graphics and design I had ever seen in the package, up there with Shaun Pearson and Alf Yngve – where Jason was testing how far he could push the package.
Running up the phone bill
In the meantime, Jason had kindly passed on his phone number, so periodically I would ring him up and have a chat for a few hours about what was going on in the scene, talking about the then dying Commodore Format magazine and what he was working on. He was always very patient and if he was getting angry with my calls, he never showed it or said anything to me.
There was constant encouragement to keep producing my SEUCK efforts, regardless of how bad and the encouragement further to try and start programming with a proper language (which I was always too lazy to do or master properly).
One act of kindness was when I had been duped by an older kid in 1995 and sold an old Commodore Compunet modem for about £25. A complete rip off, as you could not really connect to any BBS’ or anything like that, which I had been hoping to do. Jason patiently explained why I was not able to use it but said that he had the very same modem, and we could connect using a package called “User-User” (https://csdb.dk/release/?id=105968).
Through the package, Jason would send me compunet demos whilst sending messages in a very slow chat client. It took ages to download stuff and cost a fortune on the phone bill, but it gave me a taste of the experience, which I always was thankful for. When I caught up with the older kid a bit later, clearly trying to gloat that he had sold on a duffer, he was angry to hear that I had been able to make use of it 🙂
Commodore Zone magazine
By now, it was clear that Commodore Format was not going to be around much longer – and many had started producing fanzines to keep things going. Jason and Kenz were plotting their own, with the creation of Commodore Zone. Jason would be editor for around 6 issues in total, where I believe the first issues were produced on an Amiga 1200.
Psytronik was still running at this stage, and I was still trying to make games to keep the C64 alive. I had finally got a game coming together which I was proud of and asked Jason if he would enhance it for Psytronik to possibly sell on their label. Looking back now, the game was not that great at all and was nowhere near the quality or standard of Alf Yngve’s work that had been released prior.
Rather than just be told that it was not good enough, Jason and Kenz very kindly hatched a plan where Jason would enhance the game with some new titles and music and the game itself would be put onto the covermount disk for the first issue of Commodore Zone. The gesture meant a heck of a lot to me back then (and still does today), and I was immensely proud.
I would like to think Jason (and Kenz) did it to give me some encouragement to keep going and keep making new games, as I was slowly starting to improve with my graphics at the time. If that was the case, then it worked to a degree – as I continued to make better SEUCK efforts and even started to try and learn programming in BASIC (with a hope to move to Assembly later – which in the end I was too lazy to properly learn).
Saving my game development
I would continue to keep in touch over phone and by letter for a few years – contributing to Commodore Zone, sending my game developments, and buying new demos from Binary Zone PD. As things crept towards 1998, the phone calls slowed as my final school exams neared. I was by now programming BASIC games with *very* small bits of machine code with inspiration from my friend Vinny Mainolfi (of FREEZE64 fame).
I was hitting the limits of BASIC, and my programming was not the best – and not far from the end, I hit a brick wall where I had maxed out the memory available. I could keep writing code, but I was not able to run it properly without some errors.
Memories have blurred slightly, but I recall several pokes and tips from Jason to get more memory space which allowed me to get it to a “finished state”. However, I was not able to turn it into a bootable file with all the fonts/music etc in memory and was completely stuck. Jason kindly would take everything I had and patched it all together into a runnable state – eventually seeing release on a late Commodore Zone covermount.
The last days of ComputerWorld
Around late 1997, I was looking to get a PC to help with studies (and play Quake!). Jason had convinced me to get it built at ComputerWorld due to the quality being a lot better than the “crap PC World were selling” at the time. He was right, but they were a lot more expensive in comparison. I had basically saved for over a year (birthday, Christmas, and pocket money) and my parents also saved a bit too.
My mum used to try any pay for expensive things in cash (if she could), thinking that it would mean getting a big discount of some kind from the store. On the day we purchased the PC (giving a spec to the store), Jason was behind the till and took the order – and I will never forget his face as my mum handed him a wad of £10/20 notes and him counting through them several times to make sure it was all correct!
We did not get much of a discount btw – Jason tried, but the bosses just threw in Microsoft Works (which they had probably got free anyway to be fair). I had also decided to purchase a few discounted C64 games being sold off, which Jason would not take any money for as a result though!
Sadly, the store would succumb to competition from PC World and their crap/cheap Packard Bell PCs just a year or so later. Oddly, ex-C64 developer Zach Townsend (of Batman the Movie fame) would open a new computer shop called Alpha Computers, which would be there for several years.
Moving on from Canterbury and the regular meet ups
Not too long after the closure of ComputerWorld – Jason made the decision to move away from Canterbury, working various jobs over a period. We would keep in touch over email and IRC, though the contact was a lot less with both of us being busy with everyday life. By the end of 1998, I was at college and starting to go out drinking/partying and doing less and less C64 work due to that and the increasing studies.
Eventually Jason would settle in Leeds and met his eventual soul mate Sue, working at a local School in ICT. By early 2005 I had finished University, had moved out myself with a family, and was working full time in Canterbury. We were occasionally keeping in touch via email but had not seen each other for some years now.
One week, Jason was coming down to Canterbury to visit his parents and asked if I would like to meet up to go for coffee and have a chat. I jumped at the chance to meet an old friend, and we arranged to meet outside where ComputerWorld used to be.
This would be the beginning of what would become a regular meet up again over the years, each time that Jason came down to visit his parents on the National Express coach. It was always quite surreal running up to the ComputerWorld site, just like I did in excitement as a kid, and seeing Jason sat on the wall outside each time.
But I loved it, and it was great to catch up again in person like the old days and see what Jason was up to. We would often go to McDonald’s or Starbucks in town, and Jason would almost always have a laptop with him to show off what he had been working on of late. It was fascinating, and the hours would fly past and often it was dark when I had to catch a bus home.
After a few meet ups, Sean Connolly started to join in, where I made yet another good friend as the years went on and I finally got to meet the audio genius behind many of Jason’s demos and games. Both Sean and Jason’s work are synonymous with each other – if you hear a tune by Sean, then it feels like it should be part of something Jason has made, and visa versa.
Often Sean would meet with Jason first at his parents’ house, and then drive into town or get a bus in and meet me at the bus station for many years. Not long again after, Darren Nevell would also occasionally join up with us too, who had worked with Jason for many years at ComputerWorld.
We would either camp up at Burger King, McDonalds, or Starbucks for the most part – often and unintentionally pissing off staff, as we would forget to buy more than one drink because we would lose track of time chatting. Often, we would have met around 11am and be still in town by 6/7pm. Both Sean and Jason would often bring their laptops, and both show off some of their recent 8-bit works.
Sean used to show some of his new compositions or new EMS Player updates, even a game development of his too. Jason would show demo parts he was working on, new game developments and other bits and pieces – including a lot on other formats such as the Atari 800, Commodore PET, Vic 20, Apple 2 and more. At the time, he was trying to do as many different things on different 8-bit platforms as he could.
Eventually a new retro games shop called Level Up Games would pop up in Canterbury, where we would visit too and chat for a few hours with shop owner Alex Bowness and browse through all the old 8 and 16-bit titles in stock. You would often lose me for an hour if there was a box of new C64 titles just come in!
It was always lovely going in Level Up together, as we would have a few games on the arcade machines and get chatting with Alex too. Jason almost always would end up getting a plushie toy to take home and add to his collection, along with a piece of hardware which Alex would kindly sell at a discounted price to him.
When clearing out a lot of his gear when his parents moved a few years ago, Jason would take a lot of his C64 tapes and dupes and give them to Alex for free to sell in the shop to show his support. That is how he was, and never expected anything in return.
Collaborating on newer C64 productions
Jason had already previously helped me out with many C64 productions and had enhanced my game Xavier for Commodore Zone. However, we had not ever worked properly together on a game project, and it was something I had always wanted to do.
It almost happened when Jason asked if I would like to do the graphics for a new sideways scrolling shooter called “Orbytal”. This was after my then recent efforts with Sub Hunter in 2008, where Jason had very kindly produced the amazing 3D rendered cover-art for the game.
The game had a mechanism where you cycled between 3 rotating weapons that acted differently when you pressed fire (i.e., one would spin faster for example). Nervously, I began doing some initial sprites, and got a cool animating main ship with a particular turning style that I wanted (like the ship in the unreleased Orcus).
Jason soon got this going in his early demo and it looked and moved amazingly! The plan was for me to come up with a few maps, with a lot of inspiration based on Orcus once again.
However, Jason would often get pulled onto other projects, and I would also get caught up in work and personal projects too (including writing a book). It never progressed any further than those initial sprites. Jason though I think had always planned to go back to it and was just waiting for me to provide some graphics and maps to kick it off again. It is now one of many regrets I have that I did not do just that.
Around a similar time, I had been trying to work with Richard Bayliss again after Sub Hunter – now on a sideways scrolling bike game called RSWN. I had produced some graphics I was happy with, but Richard had been struggling with getting the enemy patterns working right, so decided to abandon the project. I think Jason saw a lot of promise in the work I had produced so far, and very kindly suggested picking up the project and created a new engine with a basic car routine around 2007 time.
He had of course cracked it with the vehicle routines, and so I resumed producing more level maps and an interface for the game. The game was eventually to be called Endurance, but as with Orybtal, other projects got in the way for both of us – so it stalled once more, with the intention of maybe going back to it someday.
Finally, though, Jason for years had been trying to get me to join his Cosine demo crew as a graphic artist and I had kept politely declining. The reason was because I do not consider myself to have the talent to be part of a demo crew, and I am not there as a pixel artist. He eventually convinced me to join and said that there was no pressure to produce anything.
Sadly, my spare time is far limited compared to 5-6 years ago, and so to this day I still have not produced any artwork for Cosine. My only contribution to date is a small bit of scroll text in a demo based on one of our Starbucks meet ups (https://csdb.dk/release/?id=147327) where we have a digitized image of us sat together 🙂 Yet another regret – that I was not to produce anything for one of Jason’s demos in a substantial way.
Our regular visits to retro gaming events
Whilst still meeting up periodically – retro gaming events had started to gather momentum, ever since the likes of the CGEUK events of 2004/05 in Croydon. I had gone to a few RetroVision’s at Oxford with my friend Vinny Mainolfi, but nothing yet with Jason. The early beginnings of the PLAY events were forming and Replay Blackpool 2011 was set up.
Jason was to run his own stand based on Old School Gaming (a site dedicated to reviewing new games on old hardware), to show off many of the new games on a variety of old hardware. I decided to go up with my wife and daughter, as I wanted to avoid celebrating my 30th birthday too and pretend I was still 19. For years Jason hated celebrating his birthday, so neither of us would mention the fact on the day as a result – and happily so 🙂
It was great hanging out and seeing a lot of old faces, including Kenz and Dan Gillgrass. Although we were not in the main hall area, Jason was in the quieter side hall, so you could have a good chat and we could look at a variety of new productions. I recall Jason having an eye infection which made it difficult for him to see properly (which you can just make out in the photos) and also I remember showing off some unheard tunes from David Whittaker and Jason Brooke, which Kenz loved. It was also the first time I met up with Sean Connolly too!
We then subsequently both went together to GEEK 2012 – a new event in Margate, and the first local one known to us in Kent. The very first GEEK show was amazing, and we absolutely loved it, where the PLAY team were heavily involved in making it a success. Jason was a spectator this time round and was able to enjoy playing games, rather than worrying about setting up hardware and packing away later.
It was the start of going to several events over the years. I would join in with Jason and do a Games That Weren’t stall for a few years at both Blackpool and Manchester PLAY events, being set up alongside. So, we would hang out for a few days on our stands, chatting and with Jason showing what he had been working on and some of the cool hardware devices he had picked up, including the Chameleon with all its different cores. This would happen for a few years, until he was not able to do it and dropped back from going to the Manchester events in later years.
However, when GEEK or PLAY was back at Margate each year – quite often Jason, Sean and I would all arrange to go together and had been doing so for quite a few years as spectators. I think we started doing this back in 2013 (if my Facebook timeline is anything to go by). We would spend most our time in the arcades, the quieter stalls area or in the canteen area (looking at any new developments either Sean or Jason had been working on).
The last time I met up with Jason
In the last few years before GEEK/PLAY Margate – we started going to a canteen up the road to have a monster breakfast before walking over to the Margate Winter Gardens venue. Often this is where we would all meet, where Sean had picked up Jason and driven over, and I would have gone over on the bus to meet them.
The last time I met up with Jason was at the PLAY Margate event of 2020 in the February, before COVID-19 began to take a stranglehold on the world. No-one could have predicted what was right around the corner.
As I write now, I feel myself choking up. I had got to the cafe early, and ordered breakfast – and halfway through, Sean and Jason arrived. I can as clear as day see Jason walking over outside towards me at the window and waving at me with his usual big grin on his face (very much like in the photo further up), Sean just behind him and smiling too.
It had been a little while since we had all met up. I had not been able to make the last meet up in Canterbury, due to some tough personal issues at the time and was not quite up for it. So, it was lovely just sitting and having breakfast together and talking about recent events once again.
We started to walk over to the Winter Gardens venue and queued up, only to find that Sean and Jason had not pre-ordered their tickets like me, so had to wait 30 minutes to be able to buy them from the stalls. I offered to wait, but they told me to go in, and I tried to let one of the guys at the event know who knew Jason and Sean to see if they could be let in a bit earlier.
When they finally got in – Jason and Sean decided to hang out mostly at the stalls area and cafe, as it was quite noisy in the main hall. So, I would hang for a bit, then run off into the arcades like a little kid again. I was also chatting with others who I knew from over the years and friends, which we often always did at the events.
Regularly I would try and catch up with Jason and Sean again and have a bit of a rest bite with them too. I remember Jason telling us about something very cool and deserved that he had got (which I cannot share unfortunately), but I remember putting my arm around him jokingly and said, “Ah Jason, have I ever told you what a good friend you are??” and having a good laugh with him and Sean about it.
Hindsight is a strange thing, but of course – I really wish I had just hung out more with Jason and Sean that day and spent more time chatting. Never did I think for a second this was the last time I was going to see him.
At the end of the event, a friend of mine who lives in the same town offered me a lift straight back home. But in a thankful twist of fate, I felt that I should get a lift with Jason and Sean to have a proper chat in the car and make up for my “arcade escapades”. So, we had an extra 30-40 minutes or so together, having a good chat as we always did until I was dropped off. I offered for both Sean and Jason to come into the house for a bit, but they had to get going as it was getting late.
This was the last time I would see Jason in person. It is only a small comfort, but I am just so glad that I got a lift back with them both and had that extra bit of time with Jason – but I still wish it were more.
I am privileged to have known and been friends with Jason, and as you can hopefully see – there are many fond memories that I can look back on and say that I have lived. I will just really miss his friendship and being able to pick his brains about the C64 like I have always done. But tragically too, I feel he still had so much left to give and do. Retro Gamer for certain have a massive void now with their Homebrew column, which Jason did so excellently for many years.
Crucially, he had been working on some demos and games which he had planned to finish. There is even Hammer Down which was due for release soon via Psytronik, which we hope will still happen. Though there will be sadness knowing Jason will not be able to see people enjoying his work, which no doubt they will – it is a lovely tribute to Action Biker, Last V8 and Red Max with the typical qualities you had come to expect from Jason.
It still has not sunk in yet – I think personally that will happen when we have our next Canterbury meet up. When Sean, Darren and I all sit down together – then I think it will really hit home. I know that I am really going to miss him, as will the C64 scene and beyond, as he was really one of a kind.